Friday, February 23, 2007

When Andrea, a handsome young Polish-Jewish violinist, is washed ashore in a close-knit Cornish community in 1936, spinster sisters Ursula and Janet Widdington (Judi Dench and Maggie Smith) take him under their wing and the stage is set for jealous rivalries, dark political paranoia and ultimately crushing heartbreak. There is nothing like a Dame? Try two of them - acting each other off the screen in Charles Dance's phenomenally acted, exquisitely scored, and ultimately moving Ladies In Lavender.

Given the cast and crew, this could have been the luvvie-fest to end them all; unbearably sentimental, hopelessly parochial and utterly self-indulgent. The fact that actor-turned-debut director Dance has produced a film of this calibre is nothing less than a minor modern miracle of British Cinema, not to mention a testament to the continued greatness of its leading Dames. Based on a short story by William J Lock (and "liberated" from a Budapest set-dressing room by an entranced Dance), the film conjures up a by-gone age and its residents so perfectly you find yourself rooting for the most unlikely of characters, their relationships and their all-too-human foibles throughout.

It’s an unusual kind of love story, and one that acknowledges love is as cruel and horribly unfair as it is kind and selfless. As the lovesick Ursula, Dench is a marvel as the living embodiment of the Yeats' line, 'tread softly, because you tread on her dreams'. Smith meanwhile - as laconic and bitter-sweet as ever (this actress seems to speak entirely in italics) - provides her perfect foil, as their protégé (Brühl) slips further away.

The closing shot, in which Ursula finally relinquishes her love for Andrea through the transcendent power of his music is actually worth the admission price alone. Ladies In Lavender holds you in a gentle but compelling grip till the finish.

Here’s an odd wisp of heritage drama, adapted from a story by William J Locke and directed by journeyman actor Dance. He presents a formidable grande-dame pair – Judi Dench and Maggie Smith – as symbiotic sisters living out their twilight years in 1936 Cornwall, where handsome shipwreck

victim Daniel Brühl (‘Good Bye Lenin!’) washes ashore one unassuming day. While the mysterious young man, who doesn’t speak a word of English, heals up in their spare bedroom, sensible sis Janet (Smith) attempts communicating with him in German, flightier Ursula (Dench) develops a secret but fiery crush on him, and out-of-towner Natascha McElhone whisks the lad away to nurture his soon-evident violin-playing talent. It’s all as postcard-pretty, pleasantly dull, and wholly inconsequential as it may sound; Dance tiptoes around Ursula’s suppressed desires so nervously that her character remains frustratingly oblique, though the redoubtable team of Dench and Smith have a prickly but affectionate rapport that feels decades lived-in.

With that title and those two grand dames in the lead roles, you think this'll be an annoyingly quaint British film about two old scene-chewers. But superb characters, excellent performances and a nicely understated filmmaking style combine to make it thoroughly satisfying and engaging.
Ursula and Janet Widdington (Dench and Smith) are aging sisters enjoying their isolated life in 1930s Cornwall, but their idyll is jolted when a young man (Bruhl) is washed ashore near their home. While nursing him back to health, the ladies discover an affinity for young Andrea, a gifted Polish violinist on his way to America. But the village isn't used to visitors, and everyone's a bundle of suspicions, repressions and jealousies. Especially when Andrea develops a friendship with a visiting painter (McElhone).

Cute without being precious, moving without being sentimental, this delicately balanced film really gets under our skin with characters who are never remotely simplistic. The soulful Ursula's growing crush on this young man is beautifully played by Dench. Smith brings a very different level of clinginess to the more proper Janet. And Bruhl's offhanded, charming rawness is reminiscent of Ewan McGregor. Around this trio, Margolyes has an eye-rolling ball as the ladies' irritable housekeeper, Warner is a bundle of conflicting emotions as the helpful-hopeful-vengeful local doctor, and McElhone is a lovely, floaty alien presence. Thankfully, not a single character goes where you expect them to.

This is such an accomplished film that it's a surprise to find it written and directed by a first-timer: the actor Charles Dance. He draws out layers of humour and warmth then balances them with bitter doses of resentment and mistrust. Character interaction is often almost subliminal; these sisters have clearly lived together too long, yet they never boil over into hysterical movie-type behaviour (although they come close!). Similarly, the plot has a terrific sense of growing dread that never erupts into a contrived climax. Meanwhile, Dance establishes the gorgeous setting and period in lyrical ways that never prettify anything. It's a film about the dangers of either rejecting or grasping too tightly to whatever's new and unexplained. So very, very English.

Ladies in Lavender is the writing and directing debut of actor Charles Dance. It was recently chosen as the Royal Command Performance film and one can well imagine that it went down a storm with that particular audience; in fact, they should probably just go ahead and add the tag-line, “A Film You Should Take Your Mother To See”, as that’s exactly what it is. As such, it’s an enjoyable, undemanding period film with terrific performances from a grand old pair of Dames, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.

Based On The Short Story

Based on a short story by William J. Locke, the film is set in a tight-knit Cornish fishing village in 1936. Smith and Dench play Janet and Ursula Widdington, two elderly spinster sisters whose lives are changed when a handsome Polish castaway named Andrea (Daniel Bruhl, from Goodbye Lenin) washes up on the beach below their house.

The two women take Andrea in and nurse him back to health but Ursula develops something of a crush on him, which embarrasses her more straight-laced sister. Later, the two women are delighted to discover that Andrea is a gifted violin player; however, his musical prowess also brings him to the attention of a visiting Russian artist named Olga (Natascha McElhone), whose interest threatens to take Andrea away from the sisters.

Judi Dench is wonderful as Ursula; her facial expressions are simply heart-breaking and the scene where she breaks down in tears is guaranteed to have a similar effect on the audience. Bruhl is also excellent, giving a sweet, sensitive performance and coming across like a sort of German Tobey Maguire.

Maggie Smith plays what you might call ‘The Maggie Smith Role’ (sharp, sarcastic, haughty) and of course there’s no-one better at The Maggie Smith Role than Maggie Smith. As a result she gets all the best lines and most of the laughs, for example, her comment on Ursula teaching Andrea English by labelling the objects in his room (“HE might be learning English, YOU are making holes in the furniture”) or her put-down of McElhone: “I know it’s not very Christian of me, but I dislike that woman intensely.” (“Is she German?”, Dench asks. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised…” comes the reply).

The only real weak note is Natascha McElhone. Why on earth do directors insist on casting her in roles where she has a foreign accent? Is it because she’s so rubbish at acting in her own accent? (Well, yes, it probably is). At any rate, she ends up speaking English, German and even French here, so it’s like some sort of McElhone bad accent bonanza.

Luckily, there’s much better support from the likes of David Warner (as the jealous doctor), Clive Russell (as a fiddle-playing local) and Miriam Margolyes as Dorcas The Comedy House-keeper, who would have stolen the show, if Maggie Smith hadn’t beaten her to it.

Dance handles his material well and makes excellent use of his locations as well as creating convincing period detail. The main problem, then, is that not all that much really happens – it’s somewhat disappointing that McElhone doesn’t turn out to be a Nazi spy, for example, despite her avid sketching of estuaries and watchtowers.

That said, Ladies in Lavender is an enjoyable, quietly moving film that’s definitely worth seeing for its performances.

Bruno Dumont

Bruno Dumont (born 1958, Bailleul, France) is a French film director. To date, he has directed four feature films, all of which border somewhere between realistic drama and the avant-garde. His film L'humanité won several awards at the Cannes film festival in 1999, including the Jury Grand Prize.

Dumont has a background of Greek and German philosophy, and of corporate video.[1] His films often show extreme violence and provocative sexual behavior, and are usually classified as art films. Dumont has himself likened his films to visual arts, and he typically uses long shots, close-ups of people's bodies, and story lines involving extreme emotions.

He says that some of his favorite filmmakers are Stanley Kubrick,Ingmar Bergman, Pasolini, Rossellini, and Kiarostami.

With Bruno Dumont, everything starts with the landscape. Visceral, it vibrates in rhythm with the movement of the bodies, in which the sensitive reflects the interior climate of the character. Reaffirmed in the title, this territory defines clear dramaturgy. The film mirrors two spaces with climates that are worlds apart: the cinegenic region of Flanders and an Eastern country suffocating from the heat. Dumont's camera brush sensitively draws the contours of these moving landscapes. With one, a pallet saturated with gray, the other with the sun, and everything ends in a blaze of glory. It's through the territory that the characters come alive, as Dumont recalls, "I need the earth to film human beings. By filming them, Flanders is rendered a part of human existence ".

Barbe (Adelaide Leroux) paces through the countryside each day with the farmer Démester (Samuel Boidin), her childhood friend with whom she shares a physical relationship. The fragile young woman also gives herself dispassionately to Blondel. The two boys leave for the war where they confront horror. Barbe suffers from a nervous breakdown in their absence. Démester returns alone from a war from which Barbe knows everything, having suffered greatly for it. Dumont had already exiled himself in foreign territories, the resonating substance of a cinema in love with photography. It was 29 Palms, a friction about American stereotypes. Dumont hollowed out the sign, like his shots, in a radical approach where he revisited cinematographic mythology.

Again, the director relocates his cinema in an indefinite place (maybe Iraq). The war, such as he represents it, becomes as abstract as the territory in which it happens. It is not so much the war which matters as the idea of its effects on human beings, as shown in two segments which alternate, answer each other and knock together. The parallel montage produces true disorder. Paradoxically, in its split Flanders finds a sick harmony. The successful project is tended from beginning to end by a fever and a beauty in all of the shots. The nonprofessional actors are obviously there for many of them. And particularly Adelaide Leroux, all diaphanous grace and sunken violence. One has the feeling of having had a great meeting. The actress is quite simply immense in her momentum and her silence. Unforgettable even, in the style of Bresson's heroines in which she is the heiress incarnate. Until then, concerned with mysticism, Dumont had the annoying tendency to make icons of his actors. The actress escapes this weakness and expresses a new sensuality in Dumont's work.

This is not the only sign of revival that one observes, dazzled, in what appears to be the director's best film. The sex is filmed in a detached way. Dispassionate, certainly, but not crude either. And when the two heroes confess their love, their words appear much more daring than their bodies. Whether it's about war or sex, the stakes are the same: two parties fighting over a territory to be conquered. The mise en scene notes this report in a burning film which leaves us with a taste of Flanders in our mouth.

The latest film by Bruno Dumont, the Grand Prix winner at Cannes, is a minimalistic vision of an almost intangibly small evolutionary step of one man.

The film gives a new meaning to the term "Animal Farm".

This is, like Michael Haneke's cinema, a challenge to the existing codes of media and filmmaking. Mainstream cinema portrays love and war in an idealized form, with an implicit goal to entertain. Both Haneke and Dumont shock the viewer into seeing things that are normally not seen on film. When people complain that violence and sex in films desensitize or "corrupt" the spectators, they fail to realize that most films present, what Haneke calls very eloquently, 24 lies per second.

When violence is of a form which makes us clap and cheer, is it really violence? Or is it some form of perverse entertainment.

Real violence leaves one reeling and scared and shocked. It never entertains or titilates.

This film begins in the inane life of the farms of the Flanders town with an exposition of lives bereft of any feeling or thought.

It then proceeds to a clinical examination of what these farm animals are capable of in the midst of a desert war, and what happens to a lonely heart in which there is no hope of love or joy.

It ends with the protagonist realizing just a little bit of his humanity, but which is tragic in its belatedness. It is all the more tragic when one sees that it needs war to bring a man to at least some sense of his beastliness.

Bruno Dumont, a former philosophy professor, has made quite a name for himself with only two films: "La Vie de Jesus" (1997), about the life of an unemployed youth, and "Humanite" (1999), about a self-questioning police officer who may or may not have killed a child. Shot in Dumont's unassuming, overcast home town of Bailleul in Northern France, both are powerful, stark, compassionate fables using nonprofessional actors in the tradition of Bresson and De Sica. "Humanite" made waves at Cannes when it walked off not only with the grand jury prize but also with awards for best actor and best actress.

Dumont's new film "Twentynine Palms" is set in the blazing heat of California's Joshua Tree National Park. A couple in the throes of a torrid love affair (David Wissiak and Katia Golubeva), driving a dark red Hummer, fuck and fight their way through motels, swimming pools, parking lots and some of the wildest, most bizarre landscapes of the Mojave Desert, in search of locations. There, another end greets them.

The absolutist phrase "good and evil" has gotten a bad rap through its misuse by fundamentalists of all persuasions. "Twentynine Palms" is even more of an allegorical fable than Dumont's earlier work, and his concerns are genuinely philosophical rather than pseudo-moral. But I'll let him spell them out. The following is an excerpt from our discussion, conducted in French during Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, where the film had its U.S. premiere. Wellspring opens the film in New York and Los Angeles today.

indieWIRE: This wasn't your first trip to the U.S., was it?

Bruno Dumont: No. I'd been here several times as a student and for the screening of "La Vie de Jesus" and "Humanite." But in 2000 my producers took me out to the West Coast for the first time. I wanted to make a film called "The End." It was a meditation on Hollywood cinema, which takes on its characteristics but then self-destructs. It's a bit naïve as a project, but I like the idea of challenging Hollywood on its own turf. It's important to do that.

iW: Sort of like culture-jamming.

Dumont: Exactly. You go into something and adopt its format, its look, key elements like the star system but your objective is entirely different.

iW: Do you think you did that in "Twentynine Palms"?

Dumont: No. "Twentynine Palms" was made as an experimental film while we were location scouting. I realized it would take ages to get "The End" off the ground and I wanted to shoot right away.

iW: You really liked this particular desert.

Dumont: Yes, much more than Death Valley, which did nothing for me. What I liked especially was that the trees gave a vertical element to a flat horizontal landscape. That's quite rare.

iW: They're also a weird shape.

Dumont: Yes, contorted, twisted.

iW: And the boulders look anthropomorphic and antediluvian at the same time.

Dumont: Absolutely. And they suddenly appear out of nowhere... Amazing.

iW: Yet the two lovers stark naked on the rocks are totally engrossed with each other, seemingly oblivious of their surroundings. You might say that their very lack of awareness or vigilance puts them in harm's way. It doesn't occur to them that others might be aroused by this overt sexuality or envy their freedom.

Dumont: Exactly. Good and evil are polar concepts -- one can't exist without the other. If there was no evil... The couple is in the primordial human condition of sexual bliss, but with this threat of disaster that can spring from any quarter without reason and without cause.

iW: And for which the narrative offers no clues.

Dumont: No. My thinking was that today's spectator is so well-versed in film language that all theories about suspense, as argued by Dreyer and Hitchcock, on what makes you scared in cinema, can be ditched. It's the spectator, finally, who's going to construct the menace and the fear. In "Twentynine Palms," because supposedly nothing is happening, it's impossible, something has to happen. What I discovered during the editing was that a dramatic tension emerged [between the scenes] that hadn't been there during the shooting.

iW: Yes, but that's partly the result of your very precise mise-en-scene.

Dumont: Maybe, but the more elaborate your narrative, the more the spectator shuts up and listens obediently. And if the filmmaker keeps quiet, the spectator will himself project his own assumptions and sentiments onto the screen.

iW: Had you wanted to make a horror film before you went out west?

Dumont: No. I decided to because of what I felt when I got there. I'd never been to a desert before and I had this profoundly metaphysical experience of fear.

iW: Not even the Sahara?

Dumont: No.

iW: Were you there at night?

Dumont: No, just in the daytime. But I knew I was in the USA where anything can happen.

iW: Well, in Europe too.

Dumont: Yes, but... no no no no no. There's a longstanding myth about the United States that is still very prevalent in Europe [despite recent developments]. Historically the "America" of this myth is an incredible human adventure and an experiment in political democracy. But at the same time, or so we're told, it's the land of extremes where the worst can happen.

iW: Yeah, but... What led to the casting of unknown actor David Wissak and the Russian Katia Gulebova?

Dumont: Mainly budget. My first choice was to work with only English-speaking American actors, but the financial partners in the film wanted 50 percent of the dialogue to be in French. I'd met Katia Golubeva in Los Angeles. She spoke very bad French. That she was Russian was incidental to the story -- I had absolutely no geopolitical intentions. So, interestingly, the two of them could barely communicate.

iW: Except physically.

Dumont: Yes, which was great.

iW: To go back to this very erotic rapport in such a harsh location that's so exposed to the elements, sun, cold -- was this in counterpoint?

Dumont: Well, I saw it as harmony rather than contrast. I saw the desert as a savage, even regressive place, where the human body is at one with nature -- naked rocks, naked bodies. The couple are regressing precisely in their lack of awareness, of verbal language, everything that we think of as human and civilized -- to try to revert to some instinctual state. You can't go further than being naked. And they're recharging their... they're taking the sun.

iW: The sex in this film is very much like the sex in your first film, "La Vie de Jesus."

Dumont: Yes, raw, primal. Sex becomes violent when you eliminate all the sentiments... voila, it gets crude. I wrote the script in two weeks flat.

iW: So the little narrative incidents, the lovers' fight, the dog with three legs -- did those come up during the shoot?

Dumont: What's experimental about the film is that it stays clear of all the normal romantic conventions. It's about the banality of the couple. About boredom, anticipation, anger, reconciliation. All the so-called trivia, the details of a relationship, I made those the focus. I wanted to reduce the importance of the subject matter and change the figure-ground relationship. Have two tiny little figures against a vast backdrop. The best parallel I can think of is the transition from figurative to abstract painting.

iW: So with this very, very radical ending, do you think some people might not understand what you're up to?

Dumont: Perhaps the end of the film is too definitive and authoritarian, too violent even, by comparison with the first three quarters of the film, where the viewer is quite free to wander around in his imagination. But I knew I wanted to end up with total carnage.

iW: You knew that from the start?

Dumont: Of course. I wanted to show how one can arrive at that point. But I did ask myself a lot of questions about it.

iW: And you also left a lot of questions for the viewer.

Dumont: That too.

iW: How do you see "Twentynine Palms" in relation to your first two films?

Dumont: I see it as moving closer to formal art. My dream is that this film would be shown in museums, not in movie theatres. And that people should see it as individuals and not as a collective audience.

iW: Will your next film be shot here or in Europe?

Dumont: In Europe because it's less expensive. So I'm preparing something that I'll shoot in France when I get back... But the United States is such a potent political, cultural, and economic model in the evocation of the contemporary world, that to come here, select some elements from the prototype and rearrange them, that's really interesting artistically.